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House education panel OKs easing class-size penalties

A House education panel on Tuesday approved a proposal to ease the penalties for school districts that fail to comply with state class size caps. 

"This bill does not change the Constitution. We cannot do that," said Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, who is sponsoring the bill. "What it does attempt to change is the computation of the statutory penalty."

In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting the number of students in public-school classrooms. Elementary-school classrooms are now capped at 18 students. Classrooms in middle and high schools may only have 22 and 25 students, respectively.

School districts that do not comply with those requirements are subject to financial penalties, which are calculated based on the average number of students in each classroom.

If the Moraitis bill were to become law, the state would use the schoolwide average to calculate the penalty. That would give school districts a little more flexibility -- and, in some instances, reduce the size of the penalty. In Broward, for example, the penalty would drop from $1.2 million to about $600 million, school district lobbyist Georgia Slack said.

Slack also pointed out that charter schools -- which receive public dollars, but are managed by private management companies or non-profit organizations -- are penalized based on schoolwide averages, not classroom averages.

"We are simply trying to put the traditional schools, which are public schools, on the same level playing field as charter schools, which are also public schools," she said.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, rejected the idea that the bill was about parity. She pointed out that charter schools receive less in facilities funding than traditional public schools.

Adkins voted for the bill anyway.

"I do believe school districts need that flexibility," she said.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee went on to unanimously approve the bill.